7: An Experimental Mutiny Against Excess

7“What sorts of things do you read?” people ask me, when they find out that reading is almost my only hobby. “Almost anything,” I tell them. “All sorts. Horror, romance, literary fiction, mysteries, religion, biography, history, psychology, science writing. Well — I don’t usually read much self-help.” And I laugh a little.

So I didn’t think I would like 7: An Experimental Mutiny Against Excess, by Jen Hatmaker — it’s part of a genre I don’t enjoy and normally think is too prescriptive (rules for everyone!) when almost everyone can usefully live their own lives without much interference. It had another couple of strikes against it, too. I find books telling me how to declutter and tidy up annoying. (The recent The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up: The Japanese Art of Decluttering and Organizing is an excellent example of a book I wanted to throw across the room, thereby creating more mess.) Hatmaker also speaks the language of evangelical Christians, which I assumed I would find preachy and irritating. I’m a Christian, but from a different tradition. Surely her ideas about excess would not match mine.

Imagine my surprise when I was so engaged in this book that I dropped almost everything for an entire weekend to finish it. This is not a book telling you what you should do. It’s a book telling you what Hatmaker (and sometimes her family and friends along with her) did about their strong sense of global and domestic poverty, and how it affected them, and why. The results are surprisingly funny, moving, unfussy, and self-aware.

Hatmaker, disgusted and shocked by American excess in the face of horrifying and heartbreaking global need, decided to take on a different project of reduction and fasting for each of 7 months. She ate only seven foods for a month: chicken, eggs, spinach, avocado, apples, sweet potatoes, and whole wheat bread. (Olive oil, salt, and pepper were allowed for cooking.) She wore only seven items of clothing for a month: a short-sleeved T-shirt, a long-sleeved T-shirt, tw0 pairs of shoes that counted as one, two pairs of pants, and a dress shirt. This, for someone who has numerous speaking engagements in any given month. (Underwear didn’t count.) During this particular month, she came to terms with the hundreds and hundreds of unworn items in her closet, and gave them away — but knew there was more reduction, learning, and humility to come.

Perhaps the month I was most bemused by — but enjoyed reading about the most — was the month about waste. Hatmaker lives in Austin, Texas, but like many conservative evangelical families, has never seen the need to use the resources available in her community to help the earth. She barely knew what those green bins by her curbside were for. During this month, she made every single possible effort, not only to recycle, not only to compost, but to build a garden in her back yard, partially staffed by formerly homeless families in her community. She learned about why it is important to love the earth, and to use it in a way that sees it as the wonder of creation. She created a family in Austin that worked together to give something back to the environment. This, to me, was the most permanently transformational month for Hatmaker and her family, though other months spoke more to human global need and intercultural humility. We can all do no other than our utmost before our planet.

This book was about far more than organizing your life, or about tidying up. And its language and reach are about far more than a single point of view, whether Christian or not. Hatmaker is funny and wise, humble and kind — but in the end, she is rebelling against the Western way of life that tells us that buying beautiful apothecary jars and bins from the Container Store to put our things in will solve our problems. In fact, this will leave people around the world — and in our own country! — as hungry as they ever were, and as much in need of love as well as food. Only radical change in our own lives will change this. Hatmaker chose the seven places in her own life that she thought were places of excess, from food to media, from the environment to spending — but she doesn’t prescribe that for you. She wants you to think about your own life, your own excess, your own seven. And help solve the problems of the world. Because if she can — and she believes she can — you can, too.

Posted in Nonfiction, Religion | 2 Comments

Arsene Lupin, Gentleman Thief

arsene lupinThis semester, I’m teaching a class on French crime fiction. Although the genre started in France roughly when British and American crime fiction did (which is to say around the middle of the 19th century), I’m staying inside the 20th century, mostly so I can have my students read some of my favorite things and don’t have to edge anything out! We’ll be reading five novels, thinking about justice and social order and gender and ethnic minorities and methods of deduction and geography and space and weather and conventions of genre and style (among other things.)

The first book I had them read is the first in Maurice Leblanc’s series about Arsène Lupin. Lupin is a sort of master criminal, impossible to catch since he never leaves a trace, a high-class burglar who robs only from the rich, and even then takes only the very best of their treasures because he has such impeccable taste:

Arsène Lupin, the whimsical gentleman who only operates in castles and salons, and who, one night, when he had broken into Baron Schormann’s home, departed with empty hands and left his card decorated with this motto: “Arsène Lupin, gentleman-thief, will return when the furniture is authentic.” Arsène Lupin, the man of a thousand disguises, by turn tenor, bookmaker, son and heir, adolescent, old man, salesman from Marseilles, Russian doctor, Spanish bullfighter!

This book was written in 1907 and serialized in newspapers, and each chapter is a short story about Lupin, rather than there being a longer narrative arc to the book. This works because of the continuity of the gentleman-thief himself — a bit like reading the stories about Sherlock Holmes — and because the stories themselves are fantastic. They are witty, dramatic, often extremely funny, hugely entertaining (car chases! escapes from prison! disguises and double-crosses! jiu-jitsu and a hook to the jugular!) and they always take place at the highest levels of society. Lupin sees his crime as a game, and is a master manipulator, but he’s no Moriarty. Sometimes rich people wind up without a Rubens or so, but no one ever really gets hurt.

It’s interesting to reflect that partly because of the harsh measures acted out by the police under Napoleon III (censorship, surveillance, repressive measures against opponents, etc.) the police were rarely sympathetic characters in French crime fiction until nearly the 1930s. In early novels, you’ll see journalists fighting crime, and there are two major series — like this one — in which the criminal is the protagonist. How do we understand crime and justice when we’re rooting for the criminal to get away with it? If it’s a generally understood purpose of crime fiction that it moves from disorder to order, then what do we do with a gentleman thief? It’s also a terrific window on Belle Epoque society: Leblanc is very interested in modern technology in 1907, like motor-cars, telephones, telegrams, “petits bleus” (a system of communication by pneumatic tubes), and so on.

Arsène Lupin is a wonderful read. If you’ve never encountered Leblanc’s work, give this one a try: it’s been translated by Michael Sims for Penguin Classics. (The translation here is my own.)

Posted in Fiction, Mysteries | 9 Comments

The World Beneath

world beneathTwenty-five years ago, Sandy and Rich met as part of “the Blockade,” an environmental protest against the damming of Tasmania’s Franklin River. It worked: the government called off the construction, and Sandy and Rich’s relationship got a lift in the warm tide of optimism that followed.

But real life didn’t offer the couple the same thrills as chaining themselves to trees or singing protest songs. Sandy’s recycled jewelry and Rich’s freelance photography barely covered the bills, and when Sandy announced her unexpected pregnancy, Rich’s suggestion that they move to Borneo did not go down well, and the couple separated for the next 15 years.

Cue the present day, when Rich has decided to re-enter the scene, wanting to get to know his daughter Sophie. While he has been using a job editing infomercials to fund his photography trips around the world, Sandy has been stuck in a hippie enclave with her friends (who are as judgmental as you can well imagine — what, you mean you didn’t say the correct prayers when you planted a sacred tree over your placenta?) Now, he makes Sophie an offer: why not do the six-day Cradle Mountain hike with me in Tasmania? It’s a walk thousands of people do each year; it’s challenging but a great opportunity to get to know each other again. Sandy is horrified when Sophie accepts, but Sophie, a hard-shelled and organized fifteen-year-old Goth, has had about enough of her soft and indecisive mother, and is ready to test her dream of what her father might be like.

Landscape is an enormously important feature of this book. Cate Kennedy describes the rigors and the beauties of the Tasmanian wilderness, which is both tough and unimaginably fragile. Similarly, Sophie and Rich’s relationship begins to erode quickly under stress. Rich isn’t prepared for a daughter who won’t adore him, and in fact he’s not all that adorable. Not only does he have difficulty seeing the world around him as anything other than a photo op (he is annoyed when Sophie wants to walk next to him rather than in front of him, because he can’t capture the lonely-figure-in-the wilderness picture he wants), he is oblivious of anything outside his own needs, and completely fails to realize that Sophie is eating almost nothing at all.

The main flaw of this book is that the parents are both ridiculously easy targets. The book switches perspectives, seeing things from Rich’s, Sandy’s, and Sophie’s different points of view, but it is coolly contemptuous of the parents no matter whose vantage point we have. Kennedy takes pains to make fun of both Rich and Sandy even when it stretches plausibility. In one instance, Sandy hears from Sophie’s excited teachers that she has built an “emo goth” website that is extremely clever, has done all the coding herself, and has made it very popular. Sandy goes home and, after accessing her dial-up internet (Sandy has resisted getting broadband because… we are not sure why, perhaps as a Rage Against the Machine gesture) searches for the term “Elmo goth.” Really? Elmo doesn’t even rhyme with emo. I could see searching for “imo” or “eemo” or “emoh.” But “elmo?” Rich and Sandy are supposed to be childlike, stuck in their pasts, but they wind up as flabby caricatures. The book would have been significantly better with more complex adult characters.

I will say, however, that Sophie is a bracing character, and the descriptions of the landscape make for interesting reading. This was a debut novel from Kennedy, who has also published short stories, poems, and a memoir. I’d be curious to see more from her, and see how her writing develops.

Posted in Fiction | 6 Comments


seabiscuitSeabiscuit was the biggest newsmaker in the world in 1938, getting more coverage than FDR, Hitler, or Mussolini. But no one would have been able to predict it. He had short, crooked legs, a “sad tail,” and a pedigree that predicted he’d be completely ungovernable. His trainer, Tom Smith, was a taciturn unknown from Colorado who had never had any significant successes. His jockey, Red Pollard, was blind in one eye, half-crippled from falls, and a heavy drinker. With this unlikely trio — and a history of injury, conspiracy, and bad luck along the way — some of the most scorching, thrilling, unbeatable races of the twentieth century played to tens of thousands of race fans cheering Seabiscuit home.

His owner, Charles Howard, had started off in the brand-new automobile business, and bought Seabiscuit for a bargain-basement price because no one could get the bone-lazy horse to run. All Seabiscuit wanted to do was sleep and eat his head off. It took all Tom Smith’s tricks to get him interested in the race, give him a heart for winning, and turn him into the athlete he had the potential to become. Once that happened, however, Seabiscuit ate up the track in times no one had ever seen bested. Smith kept Seabiscuit’s workouts hidden from the press in a hopeless effort to keep his impost weights down, but the stewards consistently made the horse carry 130 pounds or more. It didn’t matter. He beat one horse after another that had been considered unbeatable. After a long rivalry with Triple Crown winner War Admiral, he finally beat him in a match race that is still widely regarded as the greatest horse race ever run.

This story has so much to love about it. As Laura Hillenbrand puts it in her prologue,

For the Seabiscuit crew and for America, it was the beginning of five uproarious years of anguish and exultation…. Graced with blistering speed, tactical versatility, and indomitable will, he shipped more than fifty thousand exhausting railroad miles, carried staggering weight to victory against the best horses in the country, and shattered more than a dozen track records….Along the way, the little horse and the men who rehabilitated him captured the American imagination. It wasn’t just greatness that drew the people to them. It was their story.

Hillenbrand gives the background and the personality of each of the figures in the story, from the wealthy and optimistic Howard to the mysterious, nearly-wordless Smith (a horse whisperer if I’ve ever read about one) to the mischievous Pollard. The historical context is equally important — the danger to the jockeys, the entertainment for fans during the Great Depression — and Hillenbrand is good at making it vivid.

Still, this book wasn’t as gripping as I’d hoped it would be. I was talking to Teresa the other night, and she said that it was interesting information, presented in an orderly way, and that’s about what I thought of it, too. (Bless Teresa, she has a marvelous way of talking about books.) The prose is workmanlike, as you can see above. A lot of the book is one workout after another — testing the track to see if it’s too muddy to use (Seabiscuit didn’t work well in mud), or making sure the horse is healthy enough to race. I am absolutely certain that this represents real racing life, but I did find myself wishing on guilty occasion that I was reading a Dick Francis mystery instead.

I would recommend this book if you have any interest at all in the subject. It might not have swept me away, but it was certainly interesting, and it’s a quirky piece of American history within living memory: passion and money and desire, all in a little crooked horse.

Posted in History, Nonfiction | 16 Comments

Green Grass, Running Water

GreenGrassRunningWaterIs it possible to enjoy a book you don’t understand? I think it is. I certainly enjoyed Green Grass, Running Water by Thomas King, but there’s a lot of it that I didn’t understand.

The novel blends the stories of ordinary people from a Blackfoot community in Canada with the observations and activities of four older Indians who tell each other stories as they undergo a quest to fix the world. The stories merge at the Sun Dance in the small town of Blossom.

The characters made this novel for me. Each one seemed so real, and their dilemmas so honest. Most of the principal characters are, in one way or another, trying to figure out how to live in the modern world while also honoring (or not) the traditions rooted in the past. It’s a universal dilemma, really, but King grounds the dilemma in how the characters approach the particular Blackfoot tradition of the Sun Dance. Some attend every year, and some do not. Some are there to please others, and some are there because it’s just what they do. And some don’t even seem to know why they go.

I was especially taken with the story of Eli Stands Alone, a man who first appears in his family’s small cabin, which he refuses to leave in protest of the building of a dam. It’s remarkable that he took this stand, because he spent many years away from his family and his people, refusing to attend the Sun Dance even when his wife Karen, a white woman, longed to go again. I appreciated the complex way King depicted Karen’s enthusiasm for Eli’s traditions and Eli’s feelings about her interest.

Lionel is another character I liked a lot, mostly because he felt so utterly real. A 40-year-old television salesman, Lionel was expected to be much more than he is. But he was never particularly motivated, and his lackadaisical approach to life got him into some legal trouble while he was at university, and he was never able to get his degree. He keeps saying he’s going to go back, but it’s hard to know whether he wants to or whether he senses everyone else’s disappointment in him.

And then there’s Alberta, Lionel’s lover. She’s a college professor who is involved with both Lionel and the lawyer Charlie Looking Bear. She doesn’t particularly want to give either man up, although she’s not sure she loves either one. Neither one really seems like an appropriate father for the child she wants to have, so she methodically works out her options, only to find that life doesn’t follow her logical rules.

These realistic stories appear alongside the story of four Indians who mysteriously vanished from a hospital room and are making their way to Blossom. As they travel, the four women each tell a creation story that draws on biblical images and on images from Western culture. In these stories, they take on the identities of the Lone Ranger, Hawkeye, Ishmael, and Robinson Crusoe. I found these sections fascinating for their subversive qualities, but I didn’t entirely understand what King was up to in these sections.

At times, it seems like these stories are meant to be re-imaginings of legends that often reduced Native Americans to stereotypes, if not leaving them out altogether. The Lone Ranger story seems especially empowering to both Indians and women. I think, too, there might be something going on involving Native American’s role in their own troubles. The Hawkeye story in particular gives that impression because Hawkeye lets herself be defined by others—but how could she know the consequences of going along with them? And what other choice did she have?

There’s also the Coyote, whose role in all the stories is difficult to nail down. He’s mischievous, and he acts as a companion to the novel’s unnamed narrator and the four old Indians. And he seems to be the mover behind some of the stranger events in the book. In understand that King is drawing the character from Indian oral traditions, but I don’t know those stories well enough to get at the significance of what he’s doing.

Whatever the meaning of the book actually is, I found it fascinating to think about. The twists on familiar tales and the realism of the characters made this a pleasure to read. If any of you have read it, I’d love to hear your take on some of the more mystical elements. And if you can point me toward any articles or reviews that delve into that aspect of the novel, I’d be glad to read them!

Posted in Fiction, Speculative Fiction | 6 Comments

The Toll-Gate

Toll GateI needed something cheerful to read this weekend, so I decided to turn to one of the Georgette Heyer novels languishing on my bookshelves. I’d previously read A Civil Contract and Cotillion and found them utterly delightful. The Toll-Gate was not nearly as delightful as those books—and it’s often downright silly—but it was entertaining enough.

The novel’s main character, Captain John Staple, is home from the recently concluded Napoleonic Wars. His relatives are determined to finally find him a suitable bride, but he makes the job difficult by wandering off in search of excitement that’s hard to find now that the war is over. He finds plenty of excitement when, on a journey to visit a friend, he comes across a toll-gate being attended by a frightened boy in place of his father. At that moment, “the Captain’s besetting sin, a strong predilection for exploring the unusual, [took] possession of him,” and he decided to stay and figure out where the boy’s father was and why the boy was so terrified.

The boy, Ben, is relieved to let the Captain take over as gate-keeper and stay with him until his father’s return. They decide to tell the neighbors that the Captain is a cousin, there for a visit. The Captain immediately throws himself into this new world, getting the house spruced up and buying himself a new wardrobe, almost as if he’s going to stay for good. His eagerness to fall right into this life—and so many neighbors’ quick acceptance of it—is part of the book’s silliness. If you can’t go with it, there’s no point reading it.

Besides throwing himself into gate-keeping, the Captain also throws himself at the local squire’s granddaughter, Lady Nell Stormaway. They’re almost immediately besotted with each other, and the Captain quickly wins over the people Lady Nell trusts. More silliness here—just go with it.

The romance is only a small part of the novel. Most of the story is dedicated to the mystery surrounding the disappearance of Ben’s father and the sudden arrival of Lady Nell’s cousin Sir Henry and his disreputable friend Choate. A couple of shady characters , including a highwayman with an apparent heart of gold, add to the suspense. And to the silliness—the good people recognize each other as good almost immediately, regardless of their actions. Just go with it!

This novel was certainly entertaining enough for a cold winter’s weekend, but the ridiculousness of the plot nearly did me in. Jamaica Inn it is not, and the unlikeliness of the plot never quite left my mind, making it difficult for me to ever feel fully immersed in the story. I did enjoy Captain Staple’s high spirits and good cheer. He made me think of Captain Jack Aubrey, although Staple is far more competent on land than Aubrey. It was also lots of fun to encounter slang so similar to what I found in Maria Edgeworth’s Belinda just a few weeks ago. The authentic-sounding period slang is one of the things Heyer, writing in the 20th century, is known for, but it hadn’t stood out quite so much in the earlier books.

Although this wasn’t nearly as enjoyable as the other Heyer books I’ve read, I still plan to read more. I have Charity Girl on my shelves already, but are there others I should make a point of seeking out?

Posted in Fiction, Historical Fiction | 22 Comments

Dreaming Spies

Dreaming SpiesThe publication of a new Mary Russell novel is always a source of celebration. I’ve been following this series by Laurie King since its early days, shortly before the publication of the fifth book in 1999, and I remain impressed at how well the series has maintained its high quality. Dreaming Spies, the 13th Russell novel, scheduled for publication on February 17, is not among my favorites in the series, but it’s still quite entertaining.

The novel begins in 1925 with Mary Russell and her husband Sherlock Holmes returning to England after a long nonstop series of adventures. Mary is ready for a rest, so she heads to her Oxford home only to find a young Japanese woman in her house, bleeding and looking for help. At that point, the book flashes back to 1924, just after the events in The Game. Russell and Holmes are taking a ship from Bombay to Japan, en route to California, where Russell can attend to some long-neglected family business (as depicted in Locked Rooms).

Also aboard ship is the alleged blackmailer Lord Darley and Haruki Sato, a young Japanese women from a family of acrobats. Russell and Holmes keep a wary eye on the one while getting to know the other. After the reach Japan, they find out how the two are connected as they embark on a new adventure. An adventure involving Japanese baths, the work of Matsuo Bashō, and some ninjas.

One of the joys of this series is the way King takes figures of literature and legend and makes them feel real. She’s done that with Holmes of course, but also with Kipling’s Kim, the legendary Green Man, and now the ninja of Japan. I have no sense of how likely her version of ninja might be, but the history feels plausible. And it’s fun to see Russell and Holmes up against a team with skills similar to their own, but developed within a different culture. (Another pleasure of these books is the way King takes her characters outside England, giving readers a wider view of the world of the early 20th century.)

As I mentioned, this wasn’t one of my favorites in the series. It seems to take a while to get going. It wasn’t until almost the midpoint of the book that the central mystery is established. There were also fewer great character moments than I’d like. There’s also the fact that I picked up on multiple hints before Mary did. There were two revelations presented as great shocks that looked obvious to me from the get-go. King generally plays fair in setting up her mysteries, so that’s always a danger, but this may be the first time I was surprised at Mary’s surprise. My being a step ahead of the detective isn’t enough to set me against a mystery, this was something unusual for this series.

This may not be among the top tier of Russell and Holmes adventures (the top tier is home to A Monstrous Regiment of Women, A Letter of Mary, O Jerusalem, Locked Rooms, The Language of Bees, God of the Hive, and Garment of Shadows), but that doesn’t mean it’s not an excellent book. An average book in an above average series is still an above average book overall.

I received a copy of this book for review consideration through the LibraryThing Early Review program.

Posted in Fiction, Historical Fiction, Mysteries | 13 Comments

Dept of Speculation

Dept of SpeculationIt’s an ordinary story. A woman meets a man. They fall in love. They get married. They have a baby. And then…

Colic, bedbugs, head lice … and all the other ordinary annoyances of life. The unnamed narrator of this novel by Jenny Offill tries to make sense of her life and make a plan by watching others, by remembering stories she’s heard, by doing yoga. She recounts her efforts, often in short bursts of text:

There is still such crookedness in my heart. I had thought loving two people so much would straighten it.

What the Yoga People say: None of this is banal, if only you would attend to it.

All right then, this thing clogging the sink. I reach my hand into the murky water, fiddle with the drain. When I pull it back out, my hand is scummed with grease.

The novel has a plot, but there’s nothing there most readers haven’t encountered before. The telling is what makes this novel particularly effective. Offill offers an impression of a story, rather than an actual plot. We get enough standard narration to know the gist of what’s happening, but the book is focused on the narrator’s inner landscape. She knows what’s going on, so there’s no need to narrate the action in detail unless some detail particularly resonates with the narrator.

One thing the book does really well is to get at the relentlessness of both the routine of daily life and the thoughts we often have about it. There’s a tension in the work of getting through each day and the desire to plan and even dream about the future. It’s something I think a lot of people must experience as they settle into adulthood and move toward middle age. How do we accept what won’t happen and focus on what is without giving up on happiness? The narrator’s daughter is still able to focus on her dreams and make the dreams sufficient. She has a doctor’s kit, and so she is a doctor. But the narrator is just a ghost writer whose job it is to make a man’s dreams of outer space look like they’re real. She can no longer write her own dreams for herself.

Rohan wrote today about stories that take the best advantage of their particular medium, and I think this is a great example of what that can look like. Much of what makes this book special couldn’t be translated to film or a stage. For example, Offill plays around with point of view, always writing from the perspective of the wife, but switching between first and third person, sometimes addressing her husband as “you,” and sometimes referring to him as “my husband.” These shifts offer clues to the narrator’s state. The shifts are noticeable, and what Offill is doing with them subtle enough that I didn’t really take it in until the last chapter.

The swiftness of the storytelling—I read it in one sitting—also contributes to its impact. The narrator doesn’t spend heaps of time on any one feeling or dilemma. Even as she struggles with one crisis or another, her way of thinking about the crisis drifts. The narration felt like being inside a mind–and particularly inside a modern mind, easily distracted, always juggling multiple challenges big and small, rarely settling down on any one thing. This approach made the narrator’s feelings more immediate than a novel written in a straightforward style would have. Because the narrator doesn’t stop to analyze her thoughts, I don’t either. I just feel along with her.

This is the fourth book that I’ve read that’s going to be in this year’s Tournament of Books, and it’s my favorite so far. As much as I liked The Paying Guests and Station Eleven, neither book really seemed to stretch the boundaries of storytelling. They’re both fine books, entertaining and accomplished, the kinds of books I love to read and want more of. (The Untamed State is more overtly flawed.) But this was on a different level. Offill manages to be innovative in the way she tells her story while also capturing aspects of modern life that sound banal when written about in a straightforward way. Somehow, this style of storytelling makes those ordinary emotions seem as raw and painful and terrifying as they can be in real life.

Posted in Contemporary, Fiction | 11 Comments


belindaMaria Edgeworth is perhaps best known to readers today as one of the authors who influenced Jane Austen. Belinda is mentioned in Austen’s Northanger Abbey, and fans of Pride and Prejudice may well recognize a bit of Elizabeth Bennett in Edgeworth’s earlier heroine’s response to an unsuitable proposal of marriage. In this case, Belinda is refusing the hand of Sir Philip Baddely, and Baddely demands an explanation:

“My objections,” said Belinda, cannot be obviated, and therefore it would be useless to state them.”

“Nay, pray, ma’am, do me the favour—I only ask for information sake—is it to Sir Philip Baddely’s fortune, 15,000l a year, you object, or to his family, or to his person?—Oh, curse it!” said he, changing his tone. “you’re only quizzing me to see how I should look—damn me, you did it too well, you little coquet.”

Belinda again assured him that she was entirely in earnest, and that she was incapable of the sort of coquetry which he ascribed to her.

Belinda Portman is indeed no coquette, although she lives with a fashionable lady known for her flirtatious ways. Having agreed to take Belinda in to expose her to society (and potential husbands), Lady Delacour proves to be both friend and foe to Belinda, one day trusting her with her most closely held secret and another day becoming convinced that Belinda intends to steal her own husband away.

Some readers will consider Lady Delacour the more fascinating of the novel’s leading ladies. She’s certainly led a more exciting life—she was even in a duel! But her scandalous behavior has done her no long-term good. An injury incurred from the duel has affected her health, her husband is a drunk who she rarely sees, and she is estranged from her daughter. Lady Delacour has fun, but it’s all that she has.

Belinda, on the other hand, is a quiet woman, strongly attached to her principles without preaching about them. She attends parties with Lady Delacour, sometimes even participating in a quiet way with Lady Delacour’s mischief, but she sees her participation as an act of kindness and affection toward Lady Delacour, rather than a source of pleasure for herself. And as the novel goes on, she looks for ways to bring about a more permanent state of happiness for the Delacours than what they find through dancing and drinking.

One of Belinda’s central beliefs is that she herself will only marry for love. Money is not enough, nor is respectability. She is open about this principle, but less open about where her affections lie. In part, that’s because it’s not clear whether the object of her love is worthy—and he has his own misgivings about her. The misunderstandings among the characters do get tedious after a while. Still, I was pleased with how Edgeworth cleverly holds back on revealing the secrets of two of Belinda’s most appealing suitors, to the point that I wasn’t sure who Belinda would choose in the end.

I might have enjoyed Belinda a little more if it had been a little shorter—fewer misunderstandings to resolve—but I still found it worth reading. And the final pages, in which Edgeworth shows that she’s fully aware of just how silly her story became, made me laugh. This book was a lot of fun, and I’m glad to have read it.

Posted in Classics, Fiction | 17 Comments

As We Are Now

As We Are NowAt the end of this short novel by May Sarton, I knew a few things about Caroline Spencer’s time at the Twin Elms rest home. I knew that Caro was miserable there. I knew the care she and other residents received was substandard. But the details of her poor care? Those are fuzzy.

Caro, a 76-year-old retired schoolteacher,  reveals right at the start that she might not be the most reliable narrator:

I am forcing myself to get everything clear in my mind by writing it down so I know where I am at. There is no reality now except what I can sustain inside me. My memory is failing. I have to hang onto every scrap of information I have to keep my sanity, and it is for that purpose that I am keeping a journal. Then if I forget things later, I can always go back and read them here.

In this journal, Caro documents the rough treatment she and other residents receive at Twin Elms, which she calls “a concentration camp for the old.” She has no privacy, few options for entertainment, and hardly anyone to talk to. The food is terrible and the rooms dirty. Her letters are read by the staff before they’re sent, and she wonders whether some that sent to her are withheld. She knows some of her visitors have been turned away.

Even though Caroline admits her mind is failing, the kind of abuse she documents seems so tragically likely that it’s easy to believe her. And when some kind visitors intervene, we receive substantiation that the care is poor. And yet…

Caroline Spencer is a snobby woman, left in the company and care of people she believes are beneath her. She was brought there partly because her snobbery made her sister-in-law miserable. If the only reality she has is in her own mind, how real are the reflections in her journal?

I admit that I am the sort of reader who sees unreliable narrators everywhere. It was not until nearly the end of this book that I really started to doubt Caro’s account. One little contradiction, an accusation that is clearly false, and her whole story was cast into doubt. But should it have been? Would getting one detail wrong, forgetting one fact, make the whole story false? Of course not. But it does show how faulty memory is and how easy it could be to take advantage of someone whose mind is going.

Regardless of which details in Caro’s account are true, her story reveals just how much impact small cruelties—and small kindnesses—can have on a vulnerable person. Rough handling while having your hair washed can feel like torture, not just because it’s painful but because of the indignity of not being able to do it yourself. And a gentle touch and a flower on a breakfast tray become sources of great comfort, so much so that the person who makes these small gestures can become a shining beacon of hope.

This story plays on so many fears about aging and what it’s like to lose control of your body and mind. Caro is a victim of so many forces, and there’s no good way to fight back. She has moments of triumph against all her enemies, but there’s no way for her to achieve a lasting victory, at least not one that would look like victory to most people. But Caro is a woman who fights, and that’s just what she does. Her way may not be sane, but when you’re in her mind, seeing what she sees and feeling what she feels, it makes sense. It feels like a victory.

This the first novel by May Sarton that I’ve read (recommended to me by Thomas), and I loved it. I have her final novel The Education of Harriet Hatfield on my shelf already. (Harriet Hatfield is the name of the cruel caregiver in this novel. Is it the same woman? The plots don’t seem connected, based on the description.) I’m sure I’ll read more and welcome suggestions!

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